Can the teen novel and the sci-fi novel meet? On the surface it would seem the thematic chasms between the two genres would be too wide to cross, but Becca C. Smith’s Riser cleverly bridges the gap. Riser is the first book in a series aimed at teenagers, though many adult sci-fi fans should have no problem enjoying the story.
The biggest question is how to put the archetypical lone hero of classic science fiction into the world of teen novels and the archetypical loyal group of friends who band together to save the day. Science fiction stories are often filled with outcasts who are out of step with the rest of society, such as Neuromancer’s Chase, 1984’s Winston or I Am Legend’s Neville. They are old souls lost in new worlds. These heroes, or anti-heroes in some cases, have long since given up on relationships or the thought of fitting in. They have usually settled into their own existence, content to be outcasts, until they are suddenly thrown into a situation where they must take some kind of action. Teen novels, on the other hand, are often all about relationships and fitting in. They are about young people actively trying to find their place in the world.
Chelsan, the hero of Riser, is both outcast and typical teen. It works because all teens feel like outcasts sometimes. Chelsan is an average teenager from the wrong side of town who happens to go to the most prestigious high school in the country. Chelsan does not attend the high school because she wants to be more popular or even to get into a good college. She does it out of necessity.
It turns out she possesses a unique power; she can control dead things. From tiny bugs, to plants, and even to people, she can tap into a swirling black hole that exists in the bodies of the dead. Chelsan can connect with that swirling hole and reanimate the body so that appears as alive it once was. The catch is her power only has a reach of four miles and if she loses her grip the body decays and turns to dust within minutes. It’s the zombified body of her step-father that keeps Chelsan within a four mile radius of her trailer park home at all times. As it turns out, Chelsan’s upper-crust high school is the only school within four miles, so that is where she must go.
The year is 2320, there is a new drug that stops the aging process, and there’s no more disease or air pollution. One thing, however, that the future world shares with this world is that rich kids don’t like poor kids. Chelsan struggles with daily teasing and downright bullying, protected by only a couple schoolmates who have dared befriend her. She protects her secret at all costs until one day her world is turned upside down. Chelsan’s mom is brutally murdered and she soon figures out that she is likely the next target. On the run, Chelsan must figure out who is after her and discover the dark secrets of her past.
The futuristic world in which Chelsan lives is pristine on the surface, with a darkness lurking underneath. Gone are disease and aging. What’s a world, in which people can choose the age they would like to stay forever, like? In this world population control is the key to everything. How can it be done, with no one dying of old age, and presumably being able stay in their reproductive years for an eternity? It’s a question no one in Chelsan’s world seems to ask. As long as everyone gets the wonder drug Age-pro, they are happy to live a life of eternal youth.
Controlling an ever increasing population would seem to be an impossible task, but society chugs along rather nicely in Riser. But Chelsan discovers there are forces at work that are beyond the natural and that she at the center of a deadly conspiracy.
Riser is an exciting adventure, with Chelsan and her friends finding themselves in one perilous situation after another. It also presents some interesting science fiction ideas, particularly in the use of an anti-aging drug. Since people do not die of old age, religion has been all but wiped out. Moral guidelines have been skewed. Teenage children look the same age as their parents.
Do people’s looks affect their role in society? Is it possible to given an air of authority if you only look 20? These concepts could have been pushed even further as some of them are only briefly mentioned in the book.
Riser mentions that there are pockets of religious groups, who don’t take Age-Pro, segregated from the rest of society. It would be interesting to know if those people are attempting to infiltrate society at large. It would also be interesting to know if anyone gets tired of staying young forever. Maybe there is a group of people (besides the religious sects) who end up rebelling against the age-less society.
These questions are not a criticism of the book. I’m glad there were a lot of thought-provoking concepts throughout the story. Being that Riser is the first book in a series, some of these questions may be explored further. For the most part, I even forgot I was reading a novel aimed at teens. At least I forgot until I came across teen crushes, first kisses, and the teen girls’ love of shoes. Those moments, however are nicely woven in to a thrilling journey fraught with peril, loyalty, and exploration.